The good book

Let me tell you a secret. When a book reviewer hates a book, any review he writes is too long. It doesn’t matter how many words there are, every letter is analogous to taking additional sips from a beer bottle with a cigarette butt in it.

Fortunately, the inverse proves the rule. When a book reviewer loves a book, any review he writes is too short. The reviewer wants to share as much as possible with everyone. Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal falls into the latter category—it’s certainly one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Moore’s seventh novel (and the first I’ve read) tops The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for me, although it still comes in somewhat below some of my favorite works of humor, like Suttree or Moby Dick. There was one point in the book that I was laughing so hard, I had to put the book down and go pee. (You’d have to know me to understand what high praise that is, but I’ll mention that my friends often say that I’m a morose and suffering bastard.)

Here’s the story line. Levi bar Alphaeus, called Biff, meets Jesus H. Christ, called Joshua, at the local oasis. Joshua’s little brother is smashing lizards’ heads with a rock. Joshua genially raises the lizards from the dead. Biff and Joshua become friends, grow up, and travel through life together, while Joshua tries to figure out his messiah-hood. Biff mostly tries to figure out how to get laid, although he picks up some other stuff along the way.

Pretty soon Joshua begins his ministry, righteously pissing powerful people off and gaining converts. Eventually, everyone on the planet accepts his rule and, by popular acclaim, he becomes king of the world and progenitor of the Kingdom of Heaven dynasty, which thrives to this day. Sorry, I was just kidding about that last bit, but I don’t want to ruin Jesus’ finale by nailing down the novel’s end.

There are things about the book that I don’t necessarily like or understand. Moore has a subplot going in which Biff has been brought into the modern-day world by the angel Raziel to compose this gospel. I found it distracting, and I don’t see much reason for the device, except that it enabled Biff to tell the story in modern terms and allowed Moore to give the novel a happy ending.

Joshua’s unconsummated love interest, Mary of Magdala, also seemed a little superfluous to me. In some ways, Joshua’s denial of physical love is poignant, but Mary seems to be in the story for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on. She has a part in the novel’s happy ending, maybe that’s it, or maybe Moore is trying gallantly to clean up the historical record that portrays Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.

In my mind’s eye, I can almost see the germination of the story. Moore’s sitting somewhere, a coffee shop or on a lakefront, fishing. All of a sudden, he has this revelatory, really intriguing idea: A guy as charismatic as Jesus must have had buddies. It is to Moore’s credit that he took this great idea and ran with it, never too preachy, never too respectful and never losing the thread. It’s a beautiful thing.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal is not great literature, and it’s not meant to be. It is an engagingly written, intensely funny, somewhat sophomoric story that’ll make you wish you could have hung out with Jesus and his pals—or maybe just shared a bit of tiramisu with him at the last supper. You know it would go great with a nice roasted lamb.